Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Orthodoxy: the data or the hockey stick?

The recent "Climategate" controversy has been weighing on my mind as an illustration for a completely different situation. (Please keep in mind that "Climategate" is not my point here; I'm not posting to call a winner or take a side on whether the scientific malpractice invalidates all the concern about global warming. I'm just using one particular case of scientific malpractice to highlight something.)

Background (in case you missed the whole thing) or refresher: Certain graphs of global warming take a slight dip then a sharp increase, so that the overall shape of the graph is like a hockey stick. One piece of information that came out of the recent "Climategate" controversy was of special interest to me as a programmer: there was a piece of code for analyzing temperature data that would take any temperature data -- even of level temperatures -- and yield results that would graph as a hockeystick-style sharp increase. How did it do this? Well, by deliberately overlaying a pre-determined "sharp increase" pattern as an "adjustment" or "correction" over the data that it was fed. What's the implications for global warming? I don't know; it will take awhile to sort out what the real data says. My interest in this post is not actually with global warming in the first place. But that particular piece of scientific malpractice -- shown in the link as programming malpractice -- highlights the difference between two kinds of orthodoxy, and my concern about one of them.

There is a kind of "orthodoxy" that follows reality wherever it goes. This defines orthodoxy in terms of faithfulness to the original data. If we were talking about global warming, then the reality-oriented orthodoxy would say "warming" if the data warranted it, "cooling" if the data warranted it, or "don't know" if the data warranted it. Applied to theology, there is a fact-driven orthodoxy in which truth follows things we know with certainty and is shaped by external reality. It is open to new discoveries based on the existing data, if further analysis reveals trends not yet detected.

There is another kind of "orthodoxy" that is ideology-driven; it is so sure that it already knows the overall trend that it reinterprets / adjusts any contrary data to fit that view. In ideology-driven orthodoxy, truth is pre-defined and the data must be changed to fit it. That's what the linked "Climategate" code did. That's what the concerned environmentalists accuse "deniers" of doing. An ideology-based orthodoxy is not open to new discoveries, regardless of what the realities may be. In fact, the ideology-based orthodoxy will warp the data and prevent an accurate understanding of it.

My concern, as you may have guessed, is how this applies to orthodoxy concerning the life and teachings of Jesus. Each Christian group has a distinct approach. Most groups probably believe that they have a reality-driven orthodoxy: that their views of Jesus are based on the earliest and most certain information that we have, the New Testament. But over the centuries, groups tend to pick up a "hockey stick" mentality. My own group, Lutherans, were the original "Sola Scriptura" (back to the original data) movement in Western Christendom. But how often do Lutheran theologians try to cram every text into a "law v. gospel" framework? Sometimes you get insight; sometimes you get a hockey stick. I expect that each group has its own hockey sticks. If I read a website and see the word "sovereign" in the first sentence, I know which team is wielding the hockey stick. It doesn't matter what the data is; the conclusion is pre-determined.

I know there are many groups of Christians, but those examples will do; I do not want to go on a fault-finding spree. Most groups are fairly sure they have no hockey-sticks in their closet. But I suspect that most polarized arguments have generated ideology-driven orthodoxies. And if you ever find yourself in a situation where one text after another gets "adjusted" or "corrected" so that we can understand it in light of our interpretive framework, then you have probably met an ideology-driven orthodoxy.

In an upcoming post, I'll try to sort through tests to help us determine if an interpretive lens is distorting our view or helping it. I'm still pondering different tests and how useful they are, so it may not be quite the next post.

7 comments:

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

This is one illustration I can grasp regarding bringing preconceived ideas to bear on interpreting data. I think it applies to politics as well: the presidential candidate comes in with a stated promise (philosophy) and then wants the programs to support that promise even if they don't really lead that way or if circumstances change. They all do it, but the more ideological the party, the more likely they are to do so. I remember reading about the great explorers. Some of the English explorers failed because their ideology kept them from creative thinking.

Just this week, I was reading some reflections regarding the "vote" by the ELCA last August, what people believed that the Bible had to say about said topic. one of the commentators said that if you come to read the Bible with a set of assumptions and then you use the verses to prove your assumptions, then you aren't really reading the Bible to see what it actually says. But how would a person turn off their own background and culture? I do believe, however, it is very important to recognize that we all come with these pre-built-in ways of seeing rather than being blind to that.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

BTW, HBTY, HBTY, HBTYOOOO-----0000000, HBTY!

Weekend Fisher said...

Oh wow, I forgot to email you yesterday. Thank you very much, and the same (a day late!) to you.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Howard said...

A very important insight to how we so often 'do' our orthodoxy. Yes, we all most certainly have our propensities within our frameworks - mine tends to be Creation/Fall/Redemption (picked up from Irenaeus) which I'm certainly aware of, at least most of the time, but being Christ centered as you suggest has to be the right way to go.
I'll be very interested to see this thought develop.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Howard

Good to see you. Happy New Year!

That's going to be where the rubber meets the road: how to test where/when/if a framework is valid. The reason people are so fond of their frameworks is because they're useful ... so I'm looking for objective ways to flag when it's time to ditch or revise a paradigm.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Unfortunately, you are so right, and I sometimes wonder if there's any way to get those other people to see things correctly. Whoops -- is there any way that I can do so?

Weekend Fisher said...

You said it. Wish me luck w/ the next phase.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF